Winter Solstice Celebrations for Families and Households
by Selena Fox
Focus of Celebration: consider first your purpose(s) for the celebration, such as:
- Strengthen family bonding with each other
- Expand upon existing patterns of family celebrations
- Attune family to Nature's cycles
- Attune family to its membership in the community of all life on planet Earth
- Connect with ancestors
- Celebrate ethnic/cultural heritage(s)
- Educate about ancient and contemporary folkways
- Extend the celebration of Christmas, be an alternative, or expand upon it
- Deepen understanding about spiritual renewal and love
- Have fun
Timing of Celebration: pick a time that fits form of celebration and family patterns, such as:
- at moment of Solstice (check astrological/astronomical calendar)
- at twilight
- in evening before going to sleep
- at sunrise
- at noon or midday
- night before Solstice
- weekend before Solstice
Length of Celebration: structure with age and attention range of family members in mind
- Very Short: under five minutes
- Short: five to twenty minutes
- Medium: twenty minutes to ninety minutes
- Long: ninety minutes to three hours
- Very Long: more than three hours, such as a twenty-four hour period
Settings of Celebration: pick a suitable location; some options include:
Indoors in Family Home:
- at kitchen or dining table
- by fireplace
- by holiday tree
- in living room or family room
- back or front yard of family home
- nearby park
- Nature preserve/wilderness area
Components of Celebration: select one or more that fits focus, timing, length, and setting
- purchase a wreath or make a wreath from evergreens collected by family members.
- have family members gather around the wreath and consider it as a symbol of cycles of Nature; mention Yule and Jul, names for Winter Solstice time (and Christmas) mean wheel.
- have family members each share something they appreciate about Winter
- put the wreath in a visible location, such as on the front door, on an inside wall, or in the center of the dining table.
- On or after New Year's Day, wreath can be returned to Nature, or kept until Summer Solstice and then burned in a bonfire.
- Prepare favorite family foods and beverages.
- Before beginning the dining experience, do a family prayer of thanksgiving.
- End the feast with a cake or pie with a sun image on it.
- Birthday candles can be put on this solar dessert. Each family member can light a candle and make a wish for the holiday season or the upcoming calendar year. Once all candles are lit, the family as a whole can blow them out to send wishes on their way. Then call out "Happy Solstice" or "Good Yule" in unison.
- Can be done as part of a feast or separately.
- Family gathers in a circle around a card table or dining table. There is an unlit new red taper candle in a candleholder for each family member, plus a larger new red taper or pillar candle in a candleholder to represent the family as a whole and the Solstice Sun. Candles are arranged evenly around the central larger candle.
- Parent(s) begin the circle by sharing some background about Winter Solstice, such as how it has been celebrated across time and cultures, and how its celebration is reflected in contemporary secular and religious Christmas customs. Then parent(s) describe the focus for this candlelight circle, such as to attune the family members to each other, to the ways of ancestors, and/or to Nature.
- Lights are extinguished. Family stands or sits in darkness for a few moments and contemplates the reduction of daylight at this time of year, the importance of the Sun to life on the planet, and the symbology of light as indicators of renewal.
- Then, parent(s) light the central candle with a blessing of renewal for the family and the planet and guide a short meditation on light and renewal.
- Next, parent(s) invite each member to light her/his personal candle and give a thanksgiving for something in past or present or a blessing for the year to come.
- When all the candles are lit, the family joins hands and chants or sings. The song, "We wish you a Merry Christmas" can be adapted to "We wish you a Merry Solstice" and sung to end the circle.
- Candles can be left burning if in a safe, attended location, throughout the rest of the Solstice celebration, if there are other component parts.
- Candles can be extinguished by everyone doing it simultaneously after one of the family members states that the light of renewal remains in our hearts.
- An oak log, plus a fireplace or bonfire area is needed for this form of celebration. The oak log should be very dry so that it will blaze well. It can be decorated with burnable red ribbons of natural fiber and dried holly leaves. In the fireplace or bonfire area, dried kindling should be set to facilitate the burning of the log.
- Begin by having parent(s) or some other family member describe the tradition of the Yule log. The tale of the Oak King and Holly King from Celtic mythology can be shared as a story, or can be summarized with a statement that the Oak represents the waxing solar year, Winter Solstice to Summer Solstice, and the Holly represents the waning solar year, Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice.
- Lights are extinguished as much as possible. The family is quiet together in the darkness. Family members quietly contemplate the change in the solar year. Each in her/his own way contemplates the past calendar year, the challenges as well as the good times.
- Then the Yule Log fire is lit. As it begins to burn, each family member throws in one or more dried holly sprigs and says farewell to the old calendar year. Farewells can take the form of thanksgiving and appreciation and/or a banishment of old habits or personal pains.
- Once the Yule Log itself starts blazing, then the facilitator invites family members to contemplate the year ahead and the power of possibilities. Each member then throws in an oak twig or acorn into the fire to represent the year ahead, and calls out a resolution and/or a hope.
- When this process is done, the family sings a song together. The traditional carol, "Deck the Halls," is good because it mentions the Solstice, the change in the solar year, and the Yule log.
- Let the Yule Log burn down to a few chunks of charred wood and ashes. Following an ancient tradition, save remnants of the fire and use them to start the Yule Log fire the following year.
- This can take a simple form of the family ringing bells together at the moment of Solstice, or it can be a circle ceremony in and of itself. It also can be incorporated into other components of the celebration such as the Candlelight Circle or Yule Log Ceremony -- in these cases, bells can be rung after each blessing/sharing is stated.
- Each family member chooses a bell to ring. Bells can be of varying sizes and types, but should blend well with each other when rung together. Brass bells and/or jingle bells are commonly available and have long time associations with the season.
- For a bell ringing Solstice Circle, the family gathers together in a circle. Each has a bell in hand to ring. Parent(s) or some other family member serves as facilitator(s). She/he begins by saying a few words about the Solstice being the start of the new solar year and how the calendar year used today in many places around the world was structured on the solar year. The facilitator then describes how bells have been rung in connection with many types of celebrations. Bells have been rung at this time of year to ring out the old year and to ring in the new year. Then the facilitator invites the family to celebrate the Solstice with bells.
- If the family is used to honoring the directions as part of spiritual practice (Wiccan, Native American, Buddhist, Hermetic, etc.), the family begins by facing each of the compass points (North, East, South, West) and ringing the bells in unison, honoring connections with each sacred direction. Then the family rings bells in the three directions connected with the center: upward, the place of the cosmos; downward, the place of the planet; and center; Divine unity.
- In place of or in addition to individual direction honoring, the family rings all their bells together to celebrate their connection with each other as a family; then they ring them in unison again to celebrate their connection with the cycles of Nature; and then they ring them a third time in unison to celebrate their connection with life on planet Earth and all of Nature.
- Then from the oldest to the youngest, each family member speaks a vision or wish for the planet for the coming year. After each one speaks, all ring bells together to affirm that vision/wish. After all have shared, the ceremony ends as the family calls out "Happy Solstice" or "Good Yule" three times and rings bells.
- Decorate an evergreen tree as a Yule tree. The tree can be a living tree growing in the yard of the home or in a container indoors to be planted outside in Spring. Or, the tree can be a harvested one purchased or cut yourself from a tree farm.
- The Yule Tree can be decorated prior to or on Solstice for the entire holiday season. If decorated prior to Solstice, on Solstice day, family members can each add an ornament. Members may want to speak a blessing on the Solstice celebration as they add their ornaments. Ornaments can be of any type, but those that represent the Sun, such as sun figures or shinny red or golden balls, are very appropriate because of their symbolism. A star, sunburst, or light at the top of the tree is another traditional Solstice symbol.
- Electric lights on the tree can also play into the Solstice celebration. They can be first turned on during the Solstice celebration. Or, if the family custom is to have a lit holiday tree for much of December, the lights can be turned off during a celebration as the family focuses on the year passing and the longest nights of the year and then turned on to represent renewal and the new Solar year.
- After the holiday season is over, the Yule tree can be burned in a bonfire, chopped up and used as mulch, or placed in the wilds as additional habitat for wild creatures. A branch can be saved and stored away until next year and then burned with the Yule Log to represent the continuity of Nature's cycles.
Winter Nature Communion
- Grains and seeds, and the feeding of creatures have been associated with Yuletide holidays for hundred of years in Europe. To continue this tradition, gather some sunflower seeds in a large basket or bowl. Go outside next to the home or to a place frequented by wild birds and other wild creatures.
- The family gathers around a bird feeder, a tree stump, a rock ledge, or other spot where the seeds are to be placed. Someone in the family serves as facilitator and guides the family in a Nature attunement meditation. First, the family silently focuses on the experience of being outdoors in the Winter at this Solstice time. Next, the family silently focuses on being part of the fabric of life of Nature. Then the family silently focuses on expressing appreciation for the beauty of Nature and the relationships with other lifeforms. Each family member then takes a handful of seeds and focuses on the seeds as symbols of life and as messengers of goodwill toward other parts of Nature.
- Now, each family member in turn places the seeds in the feeder or on the stump, ledge, or other spot, and speaks an appreciation of Nature. After all the offerings have been made, the family joins hands and says together several times, "We are part of the Family of Nature!" The ceremony ends as the family in unison calls out "Happy Solstice!" or "Good Yule!"
- The family can share Solstice related stories with each other. Parents, grandparents, and/or other older relatives can share how they celebrated Yuletide (Solstice, Christmas, New Year's) when they were young. Parents and other relatives also can speak about their ethnic roots and share whatever they know of Yuletide folk customs of their ancestors.
- If little or nothing is known within the living extended family itself about ancestral folk ways, prior to Solstice, one or more family members can do some research into customs connected with ancestral nationalities, ethnicities, spiritualities, and other cultural forms. Some places to check for information include bookstores and libraries, gifts shops with ethnic themes, cultural societies, folklore centers, museums, and multicultural centers at universities.
- In addition to stories about folk customs connected with Yuletide, myths and legends connected with Winter, the Sun, and/or Renewal can be told.
- To facilitate passing this family heritage on to future generations, the family may wish to tape record or videotape the story sharing.
- Across many cultures for at least several thousand years, gifts have been exchanged among family and friends at Solstice time. Even if the family already has a tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas or Epiphany, some gifts can be exchanged on Solstice as well. Having gift giving occur over a period of time extends the holiday celebration and is a time honored tradition, as commemorated in the song "Twelve Days of Christmas."
- The Solstice gift exchange can take a variety of forms. When all family holiday gifts are displayed under the Yule tree for several days, each family member can select one gift with their own name on it to open on Solstice night or morning. In cases in which family members give each other multiple gifts, each member can select a gift to give each other member. Another method of gift distribution is to have family members place their names in a hat or basket, and when this is done, to each draw a name, which indicates the person to whom they will give a Solstice gift.
- Still another alternative is to have a gifting experience unique to Solstice. A group of similar, yet distinctive small gifts, individually wrapped can be placed in a large basket or cauldron. There should be one for each family member. At least one extra gift could be included and this could be kept for the family as a whole or later given to a family friend. Some examples of gift groups include an assortment of pieces of tumbled agate or quartz crystals, a collection of animal figurines or exotic sea shells, an array of candles or bells, or a variety of pieces of candy or other food treats. Gift picking can be according to age: oldest to youngest, youngest to oldest; according to birth date in the year; by first name in alphabetical order; by lot; or by some other method. The gift exchange, when involving Nature gifts, can have an educational component. For example, if bird images are the gift form, the family can talk about each type of bird after each figure is unwrapped.
- A good way to bring closure to the gift exchange on Solstice night is for the family to join hands together in a circle and spend a few moments focusing together on the sharing of love, a on-going gift that transcends time and physical presents.
- Focus on appreciating each other strengthens the family as well as imbues the gift giving and other Solstice celebration experiences with a spiritual context.